Sunday, March 15, 2015

An Highly Entertaining, If Slightly Dated, Ride

Review: On the Twentieth Century

Kristin Chenoweth makes her triumphant return to Broadway in Roundabout's lavish revival of On the Twentieth Century.

She's ba-ack. 5 years after her ill-advised stint in the woefully underwhelming 2010 revival of Promises, Promises, pint-sized powerhouse Kristin Chenoweth has returned to Broadway in the Roundabout Theatre Company's big budget revival of the Tony-winning On the Twentieth Century. Thankfully, this musical farce is a much greater showcase for Chenoweth's multitudinous gifts, including her impeccable comic timing and robust soprano that effortlessly fills the American Airlines Theatre. If Chenoweth and her first-rate costars are occasionally let down by material that is starting to show its age, that does little to diminish the overwhelming fun to be had by those willing to surrender themselves to the show's old school charms.

Chenoweth plays Lily Garland, a glamorous movie star who was plucked from obscurity by Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe before trading the bright lights of Broadway for the allure of the silver screen. A string of flops has left the once successful Oscar deep in debt, and the desperate producer hopes to convince box office magnet Lily to return to the stage by offering her the lead in his (currently non-existent) epic about Mary Magdalene. There's just one problem: Lily hates his guts, and Oscar only has the duration of their shared transcontinental train ride to change her mind and get a signed contract from the temperamental starlet.

As Garland, Chenoweth is absolutely radiant, the character's glamorous aura enhanced by Chenoweth's own innate star quality. She seizes on the material's farcical nature and runs with it, delivering the libretto's old fashioned zingers with a pitch perfect rhythm that often makes the lines seem funnier than they actually are. Chenoweth sounds expectedly stellar singing Cy Coleman's score, which offers the gifted vocalist plenty of chances to show off the lush, full tones of her upper register; that she often produces these high notes while running around the stage or dancing Warren Carlyle's high energy choreography just makes her purity of tone all the more impressive. Chenoweth is such a unique talent that other revivals have had difficulty fitting her into roles written for more conventional types, but Lily suits Chenoweth so well its easy to forget the part wasn't written for her.

Leading man Peter Gallagher missed a large number of preview performances thanks to a much publicized sinus infection, but watching him attack the role of Oscar Jaffe you'd never know it. Gallagher is smooth and assured throughout, even if his role as the show's straight man doesn't present him with the same types of opportunities as Chenoweth's more multi-faceted character. It would be nice if Gallagher and Chenoweth generated a bit more heat during their interactions, although Gallagher's truncated rehearsal period and some bizarre directorial choices are mostly to blame. For instance, the pair have been instructed to sing to audience rather than one another during a key Act I duet, which undermines their character development and makes their relationship's arc less satisfying than it could be.

Andy Karl turns the one-note role of Bruce Granit, Lily's marquee idol boy toy, into a veritable comic feast. Karl displays a particular affinity for comic business, whether it's plastering the train car with his headshots, being constantly shoved into doors, or tossing an entirely game Chenoweth around like a sack of potatoes. Mary Louise Wilson also shines in the small but memorable role of Letitia Peabody Primrose, an exceedingly wealthy religious fanatic that Oscar hopes will bankroll his proposed play. And while they have almost zero bearing on the show's plot, a special shoutout must be given to Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore, and Drew King as the train's tap dancing porters, whose performance of the Act II opener "Life is Like a Train" proves to be the evening's biggest showstopper.

Visually, this is one of the most stunning productions Roundabout has ever mounted, although it does feel like the show has been squeezed into a smaller space than it should have been. David Rockwell's playful art deco sets perfectly encapsulate the evening's tone, and he has come up with some startlingly effective solutions to the musical's many scenic demands. Costumer William Ivey Long has done it again with his period perfect costumes, all candy colored hues and sophisticated elegance. And everything is beautifully lit by Donald Holder, whose creative lighting design helps to supplement Rockwell's sets in a way that the show feels even more expansive than it already is.

Unfortunately, while director Scott Ellis has done a commendable job staging this production, he rarely utilizes his cast or the material in the best way possible. Perhaps Ellis is just exhausted (he already directed this season's You Can't Take It With You and The Elephant Man), but there is a lack of tonal cohesion in this revival that occasionally yields chuckles when it's obvious belly laughs were desired. The gifted cast can sometimes come across as frantic, and Ellis has allowed a few too many contemporary mannerisms to sneak into his blocking. While these often produce laughs, it ultimately comes at the expense of being true to the characters, making some moments stick out for the wrong reasons. At the same time, the material hasn't aged particularly well, and the fact that this production is as enjoyable as it is speaks highly of Ellis' work.

For most theatergoers, the main attraction of this production is the chance to Chenoweth return to the stage after years of film, TV, and concert work. And in that light, On the Twentieth Century is a resounding success, proving once again that given the right material there are few women funnier than Chenoweth (and no musical comedienne can touch her operatic soprano). Roundabout has pulled out all the stops on this production and it shows, from the first rate cast to the beautiful production design. This revival fails to completely overcome the more dated aspects of the material, but there are far worse ways to spend a night in the theatre, and hopefully this production will remind the industry that someone really needs to build a new show around Chenoweth's unique talents. She certainly deserves it.

No comments:

Post a Comment